Antibiotics revolutionized medicine after the discovery of penicillin in 1928, saving millions of lives by fighting off bacterial infections at home, in hospitals and on the battlefield. Even today, they remain one of the most important tools at physicians’ disposal.
But antibiotics aren’t always the right choice. Too often, people take them when they shouldn’t — the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says at least 30 percent of the time. Mostly, that’s because they’re taking an antibiotic for a virus. Antibiotics do absolutely nothing for a virus, no matter how awful that cold or flu feels.
Misusing antibiotics isn’t just a waste of money. The more we put them in our bodies, the more ways bacteria figure out how to get around them — a problem called antibiotic resistance that is considered one of the greatest challenges in medicine today. One reason is that the public has misconceptions about how and when antibiotics should be used.
Test your own antibiotic smarts now with this true or false test.
TRUE or FALSE: Antibiotics should always be used to treat sinus infections.
False. While one sinus infection might warrant a prescription, the next might be less severe and clear up on its own.
TRUE or FALSE: Taking antibiotics can lead to other health issues.
True. When a person takes antibiotics, good germs that protect against infection are destroyed along with normal protective bacteria within the body. One common problem is a serious colon infection called C. difficile. Yeast infections also are a common complaint for women after taking a course of antibiotics.
TRUE or FALSE: Because viral respiratory illnesses that linger sometimes turn into bacterial infections, it makes sense to take an antibiotic if a cough and congestion last for weeks.
False. If you don’t have a bacterial infection, there’s no point in taking an antibiotic. Most respiratory tract infections are viral, and they take two weeks or so to go away. However, taking antibiotics as a preventive measure does make sense in certain circumstances, such as before surgery, because of the increased risk of infection.
TRUE or FALSE: Superbugs — those resistant to antibiotics — are worrisome only when you’re in the hospital.
False. Superbugs are a concern for everyone, including the young and healthy.
TRUE or FALSE: You should always take your antibiotics as prescribed, even if you start to feel better.
True, most of the time. Stopping before an antibiotic has time to do a thorough job can contribute to lingering germs mutating and becoming resistant to treatment. If you start an antibiotic one day and feel fantastic the next talk to your doctor about whether or not you can stop taking your prescription.
Learn more about antibiotics. If you have questions about taking an antibiotic, talk to your prescribing physician or pharmacist.